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If the Return to a Manufacturing Economy is a Mirage, What Kind of Schooling Is Needed to be “Ready to Work”?

April 27, 2016

The Mirage of a Return to a Manufacturing Economy“, Eduardo Porter’s column in yesterday’s NYTimes, describes the cold hard facts about the direction our economy is headed. Three paragraphs in the middle of the article outline the problem:

Look at it this way: Over the course of the 20th century, farm employment in the United States dropped to 2 percent of the work force from 41 percent, even as output soared. Since 1950, manufacturing’s share has shrunk to 8.5 percent of nonfarm jobs, from 24 percent. It still has a ways to go.

The shrinking of manufacturing employment is global. In other words, strategies to restore manufacturing jobs in one country will amount to destroying them in another, in a worldwide zero-sum game.

The loss of such jobs has created plenty of problems in the United States. For the countless workers living in less developed reaches of the world, though, it adds up to a potential disaster.

The article offers  liberal economist Joseph Stiglitz’ perspective on the phenomenon of technological advances replacing manufacturing followed by Porter’s reaction to the political response:

“The observation is uncontroversial,” said Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel-winning economist at Columbia University. “Global employment in manufacturing is going down because productivity increases are exceeding increases in demand for manufactured products by a significant amount.

The consequences of this dynamic are often misunderstood, not least by politicians offering slogans to fix them.

While Porter focuses on the slogans dealing with economic issues like increasing tariffs and/or stepping away from trade agreements, he could just as easily have focussed on the slogans about “preparing our students to compete in a global economy”. After reading Porter’s analysis and the reactions of economists like Stiglitz, it is hard to imagine how public education as it exists today is doing anything to prepare students for a global economy where manufacturing jobs are on the decline across the globe. The notion that offering more STEM courses or teaching coding to students is the answer seems foolish. So if the jobs of the future are not in the manufacturing sector, where will they be and what policies should be put in place to prepare students? Mr. Porter offers his advice to politicians:

Note to Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Sanders and Mr. Trump: A grab at the world’s manufacturing jobs is the wrong answer. Walls will damage prosperity, not enhance it. Promises to recapture industrial-era greatness ring hollow.

The United States, though, does have options: health care, education and clean energy, just to name a few. They present big economic and political challenges, of course — not least the enormous inefficiency of private American medicine and Republicans’ blanket opposition to more public spending.

Yet just as the federal government once provided a critical push to move the economy from its agricultural past into its industrial future, so, too, could it help build a postindustrial tomorrow.

Mr. Porter concludes his column there… without describing what the federal government could do to “…build a postindustrial tomorrow”. From here, I doubt that an education policy that uses standardized test results to measure the quality of education is the direction to head since health care requires the ability to interact effectively in providing face-to-face services, education requires the provision of face-to-face tailored instruction, and clean energy requires the use of creative thinking. Most importantly, someone needs to begin promoting the notion that we might need to scale down our standard of living if we hope to avoid the “…worldwide zero sum game” that Porter envisions if we DON’T find a way to deal with the replacement of middle class wages that a large sector of our economy earned performing tasks that are now done cheaply and effectively by robots.

Bernie Sanders’ issued a message to the 1% that “enough is enough”. What Mr. Sanders DIDN’T note is that his proposal for a $15/hour wage would ensure that every American would earn an amount that would make them the 1% in the global economy… and in a zero sum game that would inevitably lead to some country or culture wanting to destroy ours. Maybe part of our curriculum in public schools should be to challenge students to examine what they have and what they need and determine their own definition of “enough”. That would be a far greater challenge than learning how to code.


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